Victim Blaming and the Dangers of Solo Travel

Things to do in Selcuk, Turkey
The ruins of Ephesus, Turkey

“Please send me a list of all the cities and hostels you’re gonna be staying in”

“Come on, mom, I’m a grown man, nothing bad will ever happen to me during my travels”

“Please, just do it, don’t make me get worried”

“Sigh…fine”

Sounds familiar? If you’re a young 20-something and you love to travel, chances are that at least one of your parents is always worried when you’re abroad and demands you to constantly check-in with them. Why do they do that? Because they are led by an assumption that the world is a very dangerous place (it’s not!) and also because it is their parental over-protective instinct to worry about their offsprings (that, I can understand).

And yes, I’m sure that I’m not the first nor last person that have lied to his parents about his travel plans. Sure, I could have gotten them extremely worried about my Middle-East journey in 2012 OR I could just assure them that I was relaxing at Monaco.

Guess which story I choose to tell them?

The most dangerous aspect of solo travel

However, after recent events that have happened during this last week, my opinion on this subject has changed dramatically. One of them was the disappearance of a New Yorker travel blogger in Mexico a few days ago.  Harry Devert, 32, is (was?) a young American man who embarked on a one-year long road trip between New York and Ushuaia, Argentina. The main problem? He was completely unprepared for this journey and he actually bragged about that.

Sure, living for the moment and improvising along the road is fun and I actually encourage it, but jumping to a new country without doing basic research about what roads not to take and such? I’m sorry but that’s an extremely reckless and self-destructive behavior.

Of course, victim blaming is always a bad and despicable thing to do but actively searching for extremely dangerous activities and ignoring the advice of local and international authorities? I’m sorry but that’s just plain stupid.

Harry Devert probably believed that he was invincible, after all, a quick read at his biography shows that he has already taken part in many dangerous activities and survived to tell the tale. And that’s the most dangerous aspect about solo traveling: We get an overhyped (and false) image of what we can do and the dangers we can survive in. I know it because I used to be like that. And I was wrong, dead wrong.

Travelers’ main cause of death? A false sense of security.

The example of Harry is only one of many that have surfaced in the most recent months. If you were closely following the news you’ve probably heard about the American mother who died in Turkey while traveling solo under circumstances that involved an affair with a Turkish man whom she met online or about the woman who went missing in Texas after having traveled the world for two years. Back in 2004, one of the biggest headlines was about an American boy who went missing after trekking alone in the south of China. Do you notice a trend?

Just a few weeks ago I was robbed for the first time in my life in my own home country. I was confident enough to follow a shortcut suggested by Google Maps and ended up in a narrow and dark alleyway. An average Mexican could have just turned around and went for the long route. Not me. I was brave stupid enough to believe that my travels have endured me for the worse and that the world is a very safe place filled with people who are scared about things they don’t know about.

I was a fool. If it wasn’t for the fact that the robbers were distracted and I managed to run away, there was a big chance that they could have taken more things from me. Including my life. Can you imagine the headline? I can. Handsome Stupid Mexican man gets killed because he walked into a dark alleyway”.

The culture of victim blaming

However, as I read the comments on the article about the disappearance of Harry Devert, my blood just boiled. Victim blaming has now mixed with country bashing and delivered some very hateful comments about why everyone who is planning on visiting Mexico is basically asking to be killed. It wouldn’t surprise me if those same mindless people also write comments about why ladies with cleavage are asking to be raped. The most “epic” comment of the bunch? “Never travel alone, this was a DUMB idea.”

I bet that all of you solo travelers have heard a version of that comment at least once in your lifetime. Concerned friends and family members who have urged not to travel to that dangerous place that they saw once mentioned but know nothing about it (one of my aunts was adamant about me not traveling to the evil capital of China: Korea. Yes, let that sink in).

And yet, I agree with the fact that traveling alone COULD be a dumb idea if you’re not prepared. Harry Devert was NOT prepared, he ignored the locals and entered Mexico’s most dangerous state on a motorcycle that he barely knew how to use. The same could have occurred to him in almost any country in the World and yet, the news focus on how dangerous Mexico is and how careless he was to travel there alone instead of focusing on the fact that he was simply not prepared for a journey like this.

Did you know that you can even get killed in “civilized” London if you’re careless enough to enter one of its bad suburbs? It’s not a matter of Mexico versus “safe and civilized” Nations, it’s a matter of well-prepared travelers versus those who clearly are not.

A final piece of advice? Don’t let cases like this stop you from traveling alone. Just do me a big favor and be prepared. Buy a phrasebook. Read a guide. Get informed about the latest news. And more importantly? Always give your family and/or friends back home your complete itinerary. Yes, I know that doing that might make you feel less than a grown-up but trust me, even I started to do it from now on. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 20-something or a 60-something, nobody is ever alone in this world. And that’s a good thing :)

Agree, disagree? What has been some of your most scary experiences while traveling alone? Join in the discussion and let me know what you think!

Things to do in Selcuk, Turkey
The ruins of Ephesus, Turkey

53 Comments

  • And don’t forget Elisa Lam, the Canadian girl who was murdered in the Cecil Hotel last year. The Cecil Hotel is located in a bad neighborhood and it has a really bad history and reputation. She could’ve avoid that by staying in somewhere else.

    Besides preparing ourselves before traveling, we should use common sense. Common sense nowadays is the least common thing. Whenever you are traveling alone or are in the street and end up in bad neighborhood or creepy place that makes you uneasy, I think you should really listen to your instincts and get the hell out of there.

    I also had have my share of bad experiences, and I don’t blame it on the country nor the people from there. Rather I blame it on myself, chance, and hunger and a bad economy.

    • Oh yes, I remember that scary video about the Cecil Hotel. I do wonder if she chose it on purpose, after all, the tourism industry is filled with things like haunted houses and people actually pay money to experience them!

  • Very thought provoking. I always feel that I over-prepare for some of our trips and I know I am a worrier so anything dangerous and I automatically start to plan for it. It is a shame that some people do put themselves in danger and I hope that this will make others think. However, like you also said, we often prepare for our trips but get complacent at home and fall into stupid traps.

    • Absolutely! I often have at least two contingency plans in case something goes wrong during my travels, including leaving some money behind with my family so they could wire it to me in case my cards/cash gets stolen. Paranoid? Yes, but I prefer to be prepared than be stranded.

  • To think you can summarize and be an epitome of the world travel community is the worst kind of mix of vain and naive. Harry might have been unprepared and misguided in his venture, but as a traveler yourself, you know the most fulfilling and/or risky types of experiences involve a certain danger factor. The man was/is fluent in several languages, has cultural exposure to multiple environments, and to be frank is 32. If you something bad has befallen him, while tragic, at least he was doing what he loved when it came about. This type of of travel hysteria is why many north Americans (north of Mexico anyhow) fear travel. Which is both ironic and depressing.

    • I absolutely agree with you! There is a big line between being a risk-taking individual and actively engaging in irresponsible behavior. And no, doing that is not inherently adhered to travel, people can be extremely irresponsible in their own hometown, leading to many tragedies. That is why this website always encourages people to travel responsibly, after all, if they take precautions in their hometown, why not take them when traveling abroad?

      New York’s murder rate of 2012 was 5.6 yearly murders for every 100,000 people. Mexico City’s? 8.4. Not a big difference, to be honest.

  • I agree with commenter Kent Evans, Mr. Zoren’s perspective here feels dishonest. So he sat on a camel in Egypt and took his picture in front of Christ the Redeemer, does that give him warrant to criticize the choices of a traveler that he’s only read a series of blog entries about?

    Honestly — yes, it does, because Zoren is a self-proclaimed marketing consultant, and as everyone knows, nothing sells better than tragedy. This post of his is likely “quite popular” and I’ll bet he’s salivating over his bump in traffic.

    Mr Zoren, if you can take a moment away from looking at your Google Analytics dashboard, will you please consider that it might have been unethical to advertise your blog entry on the Facebook page that was established to help find Harry Devert?

    • I did it because of all the hateful comments directed at Mexico (mostly from people who have never left their hometown) in the many articles related to Harry Devert’s disappearance. An average of 20 million American tourists visit Mexico each year and return to their country without having experienced any sort of violent encounter (some of them even choosing to stay and work in Mexico). The reason for that? Preparation and common sense, mostly.

      Cases like this portray the country in a very negative image because they focus on the wrong reasons and, given the lack of Mexican journalists in the English media, it is my duty to defend the country that saw me grow.

  • This is a personnal tragedy. Nothing else. That happens every day on the planet.
    The US population has been trained to comprehend events by “emotions” and to respond by violence. When they’ll stop to think that they are more valuable than the rest of the world, they’ll be respected.

    And maybe one day we’ll read as many comments below articles about lives of thousands of Mexicans who have been shred by US authorities or US individuals. Who’s to blame there ?

    Maybe its a good thing to remind people that travelling can be dangerous. Nothing new, really.
    But you assume, like most US people, (and that’s a problem) that Harry is a victim of inherent Mexican violence.
    But you have no idea, he might have had a bike crash.

    • I agree with that, the US media has trained the average citizen to separate their own people into good people and bad people while at the same time separating the rest of the world into good countries and evil countries.

      When an US citizen murders anybody, their own media demonizes him/her and are soon to exclude him/her out “he/she is not a valid representative of the American race (sic)!”

      However, when a foreigner murders an US citizen, the U.S. media doesn’t demonize the person but the country/culture/religion/race. “They’re all the same. Why do we keep allowing them in?”

      It is so hard for the average citizen to understand that a sole individual is in no way a valid representation of the mindset of a group of people.

  • This blogger knows his stuff. Solo travel involves risks. The smart solo traveler plans his route and does some of sort of risk analysis both consciously and subconsciously. Everyone has a different risk tolerance. If you want a lot of risk, go for it, but understand that if things go wrong that you are going to be on your own.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Merlin! I do believe that preparation can save a traveler a lot of money, time and sometimes, their own lives. Everytime I go to any travel forum of South East Asia, I read dozens of complaints from people who got scammed in the most simple way. Scams that are old as time itself and yet, people fail to invest 5 minutes of their in investigating a little bit about their destinations.

      Sure, not everybody has the time/motivation to read travel blogs but how about just 5 minutes in wikitravel/wikivoyage? All of the main scams are listed there. People just need to invest more time in being prepared for their travels…

  • You definitely make some good points. Traveling, and solo traveling isn’t a dangerous thing to do. It’s about using your street smarts and being prepared. Granted, that can only go so far as freak accidents can always happen – even if you’re at home.

  • good points. I travel with my husband and plan meticulously and always have pdf copies of every important document saved on google docs etc etc… that said – my parents always know exactly where we are at all times and I try and stay in touch. I hate to look like a tourist – and based on some of what you say, that is actually pretty important as well in terms of staying safe

    • Looking like a tourist has actually saved some African friends of mine from racist attacks in Eastern Europe and Russia, where people of black skin are seen in a very negative light by the locals. So I guess it all depends on the specific place and situation.

      PS. I totally love buying foreign hats and using them on the street haha I actually got in a very interesting conversation with an young Russian student who was fascinated upon seeing (what he believed to be) a Mexican Marxist!

  • This is a great article. There’s always two sides to the story and always what ifs and this and that. Yes he was not prepared and did not do his research like he should have – stupid. But things still happen to people who take the highest level of precaution as well. The reality is the world is a dangerous place…there are stupid crazy people out there and we do have to take the necessary steps to prevent any sort of trouble in this day and age. Poor guy, hope he is found.

    • Sometimes the sane people is the more dangerous of them all because they are extremely prepared and they are extremely hard to catch by the police :o

      Whenever someone wants to hitchhike in Mexico I always tell them to stick to the main highways and only accept the ride if the driver is with his family. Never go in if the driver is by himself and run for the hills if the driver is with a bunch of (drunk) friends!

  • Interesting read. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico – for work and play. Usually it was with other people, but the common theme was to understand our itinerary, let others know it, and not do anything we wouldn’t do at home. That made the trips inherently safe. And I met some fantastic people away from the artificial resort environment. You’re right in that there are many places everywhere – including the States – where it’s not good to wander aimlessly. And these days there are resources like International SOS, where you can get a lot if good information, and a safety line.

    • I agree! Every country is as safe or as dangerous as the traveler wants it to be! It all comes down to preparation and well, not doing stupid things like getting drunk in an isolated place surrounded by strangers.

  • You raised some good points. I think it is very important to research your destination to know as much information as possible about it so you can be as prepared as possible. Things happen from time to time though that even preparation can’t prepare you for. I got pickpocketed on the subway in Taipei during rush hour and Taipei is a place where I have always felt and still always feel very safe. And I know the feeling – my parents always worry about me when I travel and I travel with my husband.

  • True, no country, or city is 100% safe. Sure, there are places that are more dangerous than others, and where you risk your safety (statistically) more. However, I don’t like traveling solo, but it’s purely personal. I did it few times, but found it inconvenient (just going to the toilet in a cafe with a backpack and the full gear, ’cause there was nobody to look after my stuff, wasn’t really appealing to me). Of course, desire to travel is bigger than anything. And if I couldn’t find anybody sharing that desire, I would rather travel solo than stay home.

    • Tell me about it! I always got paranoid in European trains when it was time to go to the toilet! I always made sure to befriend the person next to me in order not to get my stuff stolen! I actually met one of my best French friends in a situation like that one! :D

  • You make some great points. I think what’s important for people to remember is that these things can happen at home. Look what happened to the woman from Colorado-she traveled the world for two years and nothing happened to her until she returned home and was visiting family in Texas. Things can happen while traveling and at home–shouldn’t keep us from traveling

  • I’ve only ever travelled solo, and am a huge advocate for independent travel, because it’s bloody wonderful. Undoubtedly, some places can present more risk than others. As a traveller, I’m always keen to research as best I can, and have definitely made decisions to avoid some places, and not others. I made those decisions. Me, and nobody else.

    Some travellers see the risk as worth it, others don’t. Those who don’t can be quick to judge other travellers for their ‘bad decisions’ to visit dangerous places. As independent travellers, we have the responsibility for our decisions, and as such, we should respect the decisions of others, not blame them. We can but only travel our own way. We can’t live wrapped in cotton wool, much as the media seems to want us to when stories like this hit the shelves.

    Regardless, blogging and the free access to information, and the promotion of well-informed travel is undoubtedly only be a beneficial thing.

    • I mostly agree that people shouldn’t judge individual’s decisions on personal risk. The one caveat I have is where the financial consequences are borne by others (the taxpayer). Teenagers on round-the-world solo sails that need rescuing come to mind. If they have insurance that covers this – i.e. International SOS or a S.P.O.T rescue account, then no worries. If Joe and Jill taxpayer are picking up the tab, I can understand some criticism. The same goes for corporations. When Carnival, which pays (very little) tax to the Bahamas, stranded its “poop cruise” in 2012, it’s the US Navy that bailed them out. The rescues are still, of course, the right thing to do, but those financing it have a right to gripe in my opinion. I can also understand dependent family having a say. That being said, if the criticism is driven solely by the risk profile of an armchair strategist, then it’s of no consequence and amounts to little more than gossip. Good for you for following your dreams.

      • Have you read about Abby Sunderland? She is a girl who wanted to gain fame by sailing around the world (something that NOBODY asked her to do) and guess what? She got stranded in the Indian Ocean and French and Australian taxpayers had to pay £116,000 to rescue her.

        According to wikipedia: “The Australian government confirmed that by law, she or her family cannot be billed for the expenses. In France, a law has been proposed that tourists could be required to reimburse the state for rescue costs if they “ventured knowingly and without ‘legitimate motive’ into risky territory”.

        The worse part? She wants to try it again!!!

  • I’m glad you wrote this article. Harry was was unprepared, ignorant, and strangely overconfident. He was truly an accident waiting to happen. Don’t blame this mess on Mexico.

  • The key word here Raphael is “strangely”. If he indeed had done in life as he claimed, how could he possibly be so stupid? Strange. I speak from vast experience. In my opinion this guy was merely a poser who got exactly what he deserved.

    • That’s true, the world is filled with very unique individuals who want to gain fame by accomplishing things that nobody has ever done before (heck, I consider myself one of them to a lesser degree). Just recently, I saw on the news the story of a Canadian man who wants to reach the South of Argentina…on foot!

      The main difference is that this guy is absolutely prepared for the 2.5 year long journey and he constantly seeks assistance and tips from the locals instead of outright ignoring them to feel “brave”.

  • Raphael, you should be ashamed. “Stupid… ignorant… got exactly what he deserved”? How does this fall in line with your comment, “Of course, victim blaming is always a bad and despicable thing to do…”?

    And how do you feel knowing that Harry’s family could be reading these comments? Imagine if it were your mother reading about how stupid you were to have been traveling in the middle east when she thought you were “relaxing at Monaco.”

    This blog entry has turned into a forum for people to participate in victim blaming. If you really want to help solo travelers, why not provide educational information about things like what type of GPS tracking unit to use, how to coordinate your itinerary with family, where to find useful travel advisories, and when it might be a good idea to check in with your embassy.

    If you had been blown to bits in Cairo, how would you feel about a travel blogger dancing on your grave? Disgraceful.

    • I WAS very stupid for traveling to the Middle-East by land, alone and without any basic understanding of Arabic. Thinking back, there were many occasions where I was completely defenseless and was only able to keep going on because of the kind Egyptian people, who are sadly, very harshly portrayed by the media.

      “On his third day (at the Monarch Butterfly Reserve), he managed to sneak in without any guide at all” said Ellen Sharp, owner of the B&B where he last stayed. http://www.vice.com/read/a-new-yorker-travels-and-disappears-in-mexico

      Sneaking into a protected biological reserve during closing hours not only is ethically wrong but also illegal in many countries. I’m sure that his disappearance had nothing to do with it and yet, it is not right to blame a country of being dangerous if one actively partakes in illegal activities while traveling in it.

      Has anybody else watched/read “Midnight Express”? All of the heat is focused at how badly Turkish prisons are while forgetting about why said individual was arrested in the first place.

  • Jason, Harry is/was an idiot. He made his family members cry and suffer in question simply because he lamely pursued a “book deal” while being nothing more than a ham-bone posing tourist for a mere 5 years. Pathetic. And then in desperation, he conks it on an ill advised trip through Mexico via motorcycle even though he had never ridden one before. Adventurer?…NO…Wannabe?…Yes.

  • I totally agree with the danger of ‘a false sense of security’. Yes, it’s not a good thing to be completely paranoid while traveling, as you may miss out on great experiences. However, a healthy dose of caution is never a bad thing. It may very well save your life… Safe travels!

  • Have to agree with most of what you said here. It’s safe to travel to many areas of Mexico (especially those areas devoted to tourism except, perhaps, Acapulco at the moment), but I wouldn’t consider for a moment stepping into Juarez across the bridge from our hometown of El Paso.

    Likewise I enjoy the French Quarter in New Orleans, but there are areas in New Orleans I wouldn’t go into on a dare, especially at night and alone.

    • All big US cities are very dangerous once you venture into the outside areas. Statistics wise, crime in Los Angeles and Detroit is higher than crime at Mexico City! And yes, nothing can compare to crime in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s murder capital by far.

  • As a solo traveler, I have to agree with what you have said, I wont stop traveling just because someone else didn’t do their research. Stuff can happen anywhere, we can only do our best by being prepared (though I always tell my Mom where I’m going even if it wont help her sleep at night!).

  • Awesome post. As far as victim blaming, of course we always want to believe that something bad that happened to someone else was entirely that person’s fault so that we feel more powerful in the fate of our own lives. I definitely walk the line between bravery and stupidity often, and you’re absolutely right that the best thing that you can do is put your ego in check. The moment I notice myself becoming overly confident I try to halt, because I know that is precisely the moment where I become vulnerable.

  • Agree with everything, however when travelling alone, if you go partying, you might not realise you are over confident about your surroundings, due to drinking. So I would say dont be a drinker, dont do drugs.

    Other thing is I doubt your parents/friends knowing your itinerary would be of any help if you did run into the worst luck of being unable to contact them ever again…At least they would have a guess about where you went missing – It might help catch whoever is responsible, but wont help you will it…

    Most of the time travelling alone I am on edge. I am dubious about my judgement, so cater for a possible deficit by being overly vigilant. This would not be apparent to any observers, but it hinders my decisions to venture out. I have heard some bad stories.

    I find that moving through alot helps. If you stick around one place is when things can get more dangerous – just like if you form a pattern at a creek every day the same routines, the crocodile notices patterns and stalks them patiently.

    Travelling alone is more expensive. The best way would be with a partner, lover – But see not everyone has one at the time they have the opportunity to travel. Or the hope to find one on the way. Sure, can happen.

    You got to remember that other than for hardened criminals, the rest of the people in prisons look like normal people when on the street.

    People tend to stick down and build families in the regions they were born in for this reason. Travelling alone, yeh its a risky thing.

    I used to think that travelling by the whim of your intentions was the most free feeling you could enjoy, but these days I regret to reconsider I would have had a far richer and wonder spent years travelling if they had been well planned in advance. Most areas of the world are suffering in working class communities. Its not middle-class where you came from where you know all the indicators and signals. You cant assume you will guess them. You can go into a community with a deep rich history of civil wars or regional conflicts or organised crime, but you cant see it under the skin of everyone who lives there.

    I dont know. Definitely dont travel alone if you get paranoid.
    You have to learn this sober low-profile state to be in yourself all the time. It can get tiring, its not you and that is because you KNOW you are in more danger – especially the more people know about you and this is why its better to have well planned schedule and keep to it. You shouldnt stay in one area for too long, you might find yourself feeling unwelcome.

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